How to get the general public interested in comics?

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For years, people have pondered online how to get the general public to read more comics. Despite the boom in graphic novel sales among said public, most of the people asking this question are focused on traditional Big Two paper single-issue comics. Sales of such have been mostly flat over the past decade, unlike their graphic novel/trade paperback counterparts.

One attempt to sell a traditional-style comic is coming via new comic publisher Bad Idea. The company, founded by several former Valiant comics staff/execs, plans to launch its first book (about a World War II-era ENIAC computer gone rogue) on May 6 with a highly unorthodox business plan. The book will be sold directly (not via Diamond) to only 20 comic book stores, with plans to expand to 50 by the end of the year. The comic is at the standard $4 an issue, but with no variant covers. Finally, they won’t be released digitally, in trade paperbacks, hardcovers, or other book collections.

While this comic marketing’s intentionally controversial (as Bad Idea admits, down to its jovial name) and attention-getting, it’s also, well, a bad idea. Bad Idea does get credit for avoiding variant covers and Diamond. However, if their comics are nearly impossible to find or read, they’ll likely be ignored in the long run. And ignoring trade paperbacks and digital also ignores how most people are reading comics nowadays, which isn’t through the direct market/floppies. Thus, I wonder who this is meant to appeal to—only existing “Wednesday warriors?”

My suggestions for comic marketing

Zatanna
Art by Yoshi Yoshitani.

As for how comics should be marketed, I admit I’m not a local comic shop owner, comic creator, or a publisher like Iron Spike of Iron Circus Comics. However, I do have a few suggestions for how to better market comics to the general public:

  1. Few or no crossovers, variant covers, or similar marketing gimmicks. We wouldn’t expect viewers of, say, “Black-ish” to be forced to also watch “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Good Morning America” and “American Idol” to follow a plotline. Ditto expecting “Harry Potter” readers to also read “Nancy Drew” and “Encyclopedia Brown.” Why should comics be different?
  2. Be reasonably easy to follow and accessible. Superhero comics are infamous for their impenetrable continuity, reboots, and whatnot. In my lifetime, DC Comics has had at least two major reboots, plus various retcons/revamps/etc., all in the name of “making things easier to understand.” Marvel constantly relaunches titles with new #1s for short-term sales boosts, at the expense of being easy to follow (which #1 do new readers start with?).
  3. Easily available at mainstream venues (bookstores, digitally, etc.). While local comic shops can be fun places to shop, they aren’t as widely available as regular bookstores or digital venues. (Or as welcoming, depending on how the comic shop’s run.)  Going to “where the customers are” does matter. Related to this…
  4. Offer formats the general public wants. As I’ve written before, that’s graphic novels/trade paperbacks or digital formats, not single-issue paper comics at $4+ a pop. All those Raina Telgemeier readers aren’t going to stampede to $4+ floppies (or have any nostalgia for such).
  5. Be affordable. Again, $4 for a single chapter of a multipart storyline isn’t affordable or attractive versus literally any other form of media. In superheroes’ case, the comics are competing with movies, TV shows, and video games that’re all much more cost-effective (plus beat comics on most of the above points).
  6. Feature diverse casts and/or creators. It’s 2020, so this should be a given.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol. 2 #1
“The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” (vol. 2) #1 (December 2015). Art by Erica Henderson.

As for how well various comics formats do:

  • The stereotypical Big Two superhero single-issue comic stumbles on points #1-5.
  • Big Two trade paperbacks do a bit better on points #3, 4, and 5; however, #1 and 2 are often still problems (“So which Justice League paperback am I starting with?”)
  • Big Two original graphic novels, along with webcomics and many independent and creator owned graphic novels, do the best job fitting all of these points. There’s usually no crossovers or cover gimmicks; they’re easy to follow; they can be bought at any bookstore, on Amazon, etc.; they’re in a standard book format, and can be stored on bookshelves; they’re often on sale like regular books; and there’s often a more diverse group of creators or subject matter involved, especially for webcomics.

Conclusion

Overall, the general public’s clearly interested in comics, per the graphic novel and webcomic boom. It just doesn’t happen to be superheroes and/or single-issue comics; the public can get their fill of the former from movies/TV/video games, and the latter’s appeal is mainly to traditional comic buyers at this point. To me, focusing on promoting graphic novels/trade paperbacks seems more productive than pushing traditional singles.

The above said, DC Comics seems to recognize this shift, and is pushing young adult graphic novels. Meanwhile, Marvel’s graphic novel presence seems more lackluster, despite their current cultural prominence.

How do you feel comics should be promoted? Do events like Free Comic Book Day help or make a difference?


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